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U.S. General Accounting Office. Electronic Government: Challenges to Effective Adoption of the Extensible Markup Language (GAO-02-327). Agenda. Context Scope and objectives Methodology Principal findings Recommendations for executive action GAO contacts. Context.

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U.S. General Accounting Office

Electronic Government:

Challenges to Effective Adoption of the Extensible Markup Language



  • Context

  • Scope and objectives

  • Methodology

  • Principal findings

  • Recommendations for executive action

  • GAO contacts


Press reports have characterized the GAO report in widely varying ways:

  • Computerworld (April 5): “GAO says XML not ready for extensive government use.”

  • GovExec.com (April 5): “GAO urges government to adopt XML programming language.”

  • GCN.com (April 5): “General Accounting Office warns of XML pitfalls.”

  • Federal Computer Week (April 8): “XML efforts need focus, GAO says.”

  • Washington Technology (April 10): “Lieberman: Government needs plan for adopting XML.”

Scope and Objectives

  • We performed this review at the request of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.

  • The review focused on management issues associated with broad adoption of XML across the federal government.

  • We were asked to assess:

    • Overall development status of XML standards to determine whether they are ready for governmentwide use.

    • Challenges faced by the federal government in optimizing its adoption of XML technology to promote broad information sharing and systems interoperability.


  • Assessed the progress of major XML-related standards activities;

  • Reviewed XML-related public documents;

  • Held discussions with representatives from the XML Working Group, OMB, GSA, NIST, DOD, EPA, NARA, SEC, OPM, and Amtrak;

  • Held discussions with private sector representatives, including Microsoft and the XBRL Consortium.

    We conducted the review from April 2001 through January 2002.

Principal Findings

XML is being broadly implemented both commercially and in government. Examples in the federal government include SEC, EPA, DOD, and many others.

The XML Working Group has many successful activities underway, focused primarily on education and outreach.

  • Monthly working group meetings;

  • Xml.gov website;

  • Coordination with other groups, such as state governments.

Principal Findings

Despite progress, a complete set of standards for implementing XML is only partially in place.

  • Technical standards are generally well-established;

  • Business standards are less well-established.

    The federal government faces challenges in realizing XML’s full potential.

  • Implementing XML presents pitfalls;

  • Federal input to standards bodies has not been consolidated;

  • Interoperability depends on an effective cross-agency registry;

  • Implementation is more effective in an architectural context.

A Complete Set of Standards for Implementing XML Is Only Partially in Place

  • Technical standards—such as XML 1.0, XSL, XML Schema, and others—have been largely worked out by W3C and already in use.

  • Key XML-related business standards—such as ebXML, RosettaNet, UDDI, and others—are not as mature.

  • Standards-setting organizations in the private sector are creating various XML business standards—both horizontally and vertically—that are in part overlapping and incompatible.

  • The federal government will need to adopt those business standards that ultimately achieve widespread acceptance; thus it must be cautious about endorsing specific proposed standards in the near term.

The Federal Government Faces Challenges in Realizing XML’s Full Potential

Implementing XML presents pitfalls:

  • Risk that redundant data definitions, vocabularies, and structures will proliferate;

  • Potential for proprietary extensions to be built into systems that would defeat XML’s goal of broad interoperability;

  • Potential for new security vulnerabilities to be introduced in existing systems and networks.

The Federal Government Faces Challenges in Realizing XML’s Full Potential

  • No explicit governmentwide strategy for XML adoption has been defined to guide agency implementation efforts and ensure that agency enterprise architectures address incorporation of XML.

  • Strategy could include:

    • Defining governmentwide interoperability goals;

    • Endorsing XML as a preferred format for cross-agency data sharing and specifying the kinds of data and systems that would be most affected;

    • Specifying a governmentwide registry as a way to coordinate data and structure definitions;

    • Establishing a process for designating preferred XML standards and how they are to be used.

The Federal Government Faces Challenges in Realizing XML’s Full Potential

  • No process has been defined for consolidated collaboration with commercial standards bodies to ensure that government requirements are identified and incorporated.

    • The federal government has a need for at least some unique data and structure definitions.

    • To date, federal agencies have participated individually in standards setting activities.

    • Consolidated input could present a better face to industry and have more clout.

The Federal Government Faces Challenges in Realizing XML’s Full Potential (Contd.)

  • XML interoperability across the government depends on an effective cross-agency registry.

  • The government does not yet have an operational registry of government-unique XML data structures that systems developers consult when building or modifying XML-based systems.

    Issues include:

    • Funding,

    • Management (OMB) commitment,

    • Policies/guidance for operations and maintenance,

    • Policies/guidance for use.

The Federal Government Faces Challenges in Realizing XML’s Full Potential (Contd.)

If not implemented in the context of an enterprise architecture, XML is likely to provide only a patchwork solution to systems interoperability.

  • Data element definitions and structures are likely to overlap in function or be completely redundant.

  • There is a temptation to implement XML quickly and cheaply as a narrowly-focused data exchange solution.

  • Broader gains in interoperability require a greater upfront commitment to address data standards issues.

GAO Recommendations for Executive Action

OMB, working with the federal CIO Council and NIST, should develop a strategy for governmentwide adoption of XML to include:

  • Developing a process with defined roles, responsibilities, and accountability for identifying and coordinating government-unique requirements and presenting consolidated, focused input to private sector standards-setting bodies;

  • Developing a project plan—including timeframes and resources—for transitioning the pilot XML registry effort into an operational governmentwide resource;

  • Setting policies and guidelines for managing and participating in the governmentwide XML registry, once it is operational.

    Federal agencies should address XML in their enterprise architectures.

GAO Contacts

  • David L. McClureDirector, IT Management IssuesE-mail: mcclured@gao.govTelephone: (202) 512-6257

  • John de FerrariAssistant Director, ITE-mail: deferrarij@gao.govTelephone: (202) 512-6335

  • Steven LawSenior Analyst, ITE-mail: laws@gao.govTelephone: (202) 512-7203

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